Tonight is the first (and only) debate between the Vice Presidential candidates. Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) will be squaring off at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia tonight at 9pm. Both men have made their religious faith a key part of their appeal to voters, but we have some questions for the candidates.
1) How would Pence's "faith first" approach affect his governing?
Mike Pence has repeatedly told reporters, voters, and other politicians that he is "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order." He calls himself an "evangelical Catholic" and vouched for his running mate's religious beliefs, saying, "I think at the very core and very heart of this man is faith, it's faith in God and faith in the American people."
Pence's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was full of religious references:
I believe we’d do well to remember that what unites us far exceeds anything that sets us apart in America. That we are, as we have always been, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Should I have the awesome privilege to serve as your vice president, I promise to keep faith with that conviction, to pray daily for a wise and discerning heart, for who is able to govern this great people of yours without it.
My fellow Americans, I believe we have come to another rendezvous with destiny. And I have faith, faith in the boundless capacity of the American people and faith that God can still heal our land.
Both as Governor of Indiana and as a Congressman, Pence advocated for strict limits on abortion access, against marriage equality, and for religious exemptions to civil rights laws. Pence signed a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was widely derided as a "license to discriminate" by LGBT advocates and constitutional law experts alike. He later signed a "fix" that clarified that businesses would not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Pence's comments about his religious beliefs concern us, especially as they relate to his decision making. If a politicians places his religious beliefs above even his governing philosophy, what does that mean for the rest of us who don't share his religious beliefs?
It matters how Pence would govern because, according to reporting from the New York Times, Donald Trump, Jr. told Pence he could be "the most powerful vice president in history" and would be "in charge of domestic and foreign policy."
2) Can Kaine reconcile his Catholic faith with good policy?
Tim Kaine has made his Catholic upbringing and his time as a missionary in Honduras as centerpiece of his stump speech and his political story in general.
During his 2005 race for Governor of Virginia, Kaine said in a response to a charge from his opponent that he wouldn't carry out death sentences, "My faith teaches life is sacred. As governor, I'll carry out death sentences handed down by Virginia juries, because that's the law."
Kaine also stated his opposition to marriage equality in that campaign but has since changed his position. On abortion, he remains personally opposed but since his election to the Senate in 2012, has voted more consistently in favor of abortion rights. However, he has said he supports the Hyde Amendment, a rule which prevents to use of federal funding for abortions, despite the Clinton campaign's (and the Democratic Party platform's) call for a repeal of the rule.
During his 2005 campaign, he talked about his "faith-based opposition to abortion" and proposed "abstinence-focused" sex ed.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the Hyde Amendment force the seven million low-income women who rely on Medicaid as well as members of the armed forces to pay for abortion procedures out of pocket and limits access to a constitutionally protected right. The Hyde Amendment disproportionately impacts women of color.
And on Kaine's "abstinence-focused" sex ed, study after study has shown that abstinence education is ineffective at delaying sexual activity, reducing unintended pregnancy rates, and reducing STI transmission. Abstinence education actively spreads misinformation about contraception and reduces the likelihood that students would seek STI testing and diagnosis. It is bad policy that is almost purely religiously based.
Kaine has shown that he is willing to set aside his faith's teachings when the law is clear, but we deserve politicians that advocate for policies that work even when the status quo happens to line up with their religious beliefs.
3) Ask them about the Johnson Amendment and churches engaging in politics from the pulpit.
One of the few policy proposals that has come out of the Trump campaign seems to be aimed directly at appealing to evangelical Christians who think the government is attacking their religion by not allowing their churches to engage in politicking. The Johnson Amendment, passed in 1954, forbids groups that receive certainly types of tax exemptions (including the kind received by churches) from endorsing candidates or engaging in certain types of political activities. Keep in mind that this has been the law for more than 50 years and that this prohibition applies equally to secular nonprofit organizations operating as 501(c)(3) groups (like American Atheists).
Would Trump/Pence repeal this rule for just churches? Would this apply to all nonprofits? We need some details.
4) For both candidates: Say the word "atheist" and embrace our community.
Both candidates make no secret of their religious convictions and use it as a way to appeal to voters. But if they want to represent all Americans, they need to do more to reach to those of us who don't share their beliefs.
Pence reaffirmed his belief that "God can heal our land" and that we "are, and always have been, one nation under God." Atheists (and countless Christians) need to know that our elected leaders will work to "heal our land" rather than waiting around for gods to do it. We need to hear politicians reaffirm that our nation is a secular nation made up of countless religious perspectives, including atheists.